I’m remembering the descent into the surreal. Radio reports told of crashing planes and dropping towers, of Pentagon flames and building evacuations, of stranded passengers in isolated airports – and, behind it all, there was the leering face of a would-be Messiah-like figure, invoking religion, polluting its name, and wrapping faith in veils of smoke and fireballs. I’m remembering my own rage, my own lust for revenge, and my own recovery. I remember reconciling two streams of thinking and emerging wiser.
As usual, many fingers have wagged during this commemorative week: “We should have done this; we should have done that …” I’ll spare us that and simply reflect: How should a follower of Christ respond to such events? What is the role of a people with dual citizenship in Heaven, which bonds us to those of many nationalities, and an earthly country? How do we work through our understandable emotions in light of the Gospel? How does our heavenly citizenship play out in in our national citizenship?
My family was driving from New Hampshire to a pastors’ conference in Lancaster County, PA, on September 11, 2001. We heard the news and we saw the blinking warning signs on I-91: Interstate 95 and the George Washington Bridge were closed. All roads to New York City were blocked. This was gravely serious. We turned west on I-84, then south on 684, and crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge on 287 over the Hudson River. As usual, I looked left. There it was: a colossal plume engulfed the Manhattan skyline. The absent towers rendered the landscape eerily naked. We drove down the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, veering close to New York. It was as if a volcano blew up and billowed ash downtown. We paused at a rest stop and joined many gawkers and gapers at this human-manufactured, urban Mount Saint Helens. One woman said she had just left the city and saw the whole thing; another said, with no malice: “We’re at war.”
Of course we were – and few doubted with whom. Government officials would later (wisely) caution against immediate judgments, but this slaughter bore bin Laden’s DNA and fingerprints.
We piled into our car and eventually drove south on the New Jersey Turnpike, bound for the Pennsylvania farm country after a few hours and turns – and I was transformed in one respect, at least: I didn’t like New York before; it was now my city. And New Yorkers – those strange, pushy, tense, mile-a-second talkers – were now my kin, my brothers and sisters (I’ve since learned to cease asking New York to fit my template and I love it for what it is; too bad its citizens root for the wrong baseball team …).
Verses I did not want to hear
I longed to evade some biblical passages. Matthew 5:9 was not my favorite: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Nor was 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.” Don’t remind me of Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge: I will repay.’” I was not interested in Proverbs 24:29: “Do not say, ‘I’ll do to him as he has done to me; I’ll pay that man back for what he did.’” I treasured Psalm 139:19: “If only you would slay the wicked, O God!,” and verses 21-22: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” I wanted the so-called “imprecatory psalms,” such as 55:15: “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave, for evil finds lodging among them.”
To his credit, President Bush did not invoke revenge in those first few days. His response was firm but measured. Many question his administration’s subsequent decisions, but I commend his leadership in the beginning. His example brought me to my own senses: I stopped thinking about revenge and more about real justice, and remarks from a few church leaders pushed me away from instant opinions and solutions: Some said God allowed the crashes because of our nation’s sin. That was tasteless and tactless to those who lost loved ones and to a shocked nation. Even if God were invoking his wrath, compassion mandated waiting before we spoke. More insensitivity came from another wing: The attacks were the logical consequence of our pro-Israeli, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic foreign policy. I wanted to ask these self-proclaimed “open-minded” advocates: What is the difference between you and the wrath-of-Godders? Are you not blaming the victims and playing into bin-Laden’s propaganda? Besides, you’re factually wrong: Our nation supplied Afghan rebels during the Soviet invasion and protected Bosnian Muslims against the so-called “Christian” Serbs. Criticize US foreign policy all you want, but stop playing loose with the facts – and, again, let the nation mourn.
A different way of thinking
But I sympathize with the motives behind the glib comments: We want quick explanations, causes, and rationales. We’ll even fall back on ready-made answers and use them as a crutch. James 1:19-20 gives us an alternative “quick” response: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
Perhaps James gives us a momentary glimmer into the answer to one of my questions: What is the Christian’s role in times like these? Maybe we should shun instant speech. We’re the non-speakers. We flee microphones. We’re the quiet ones, the listeners among the talkers, the ones lending the shoulders on which to cry. We’re the last to provide answers because we know it’s not a time for answers. We’re intimately familiar with anger and longing for revenge because we’ve experienced those urges. We’ve seen their sneering images. We may know, intellectually, that vengeance is God’s, but we, as a people of the truth, are also honest with ourselves and others. We wanted to snatch vengeance from God’s hands and own it ourselves. We’re the wounded healers – to borrow Henry Nouwen’s phrase.
Another momentary glimmer: Perhaps I’ve caught a glimpse of how we can reconcile the “imprecatory” passages with those on mercy. The imprecatory passages permit honesty with God: We can plea, yell, scream, fume and vent. We can tell God we’re ticked off in all our glory – as long as we don’t stay there. We must eventually grope our way into loving our enemies and crawl out of anger and into grace. Anger becomes our lifestyle otherwise. It seeps into our souls, plants itself, grows, and leafs into full-throttled bitterness – which is when we become “hurting people who hurt people,” thinking ourselves innocent at every stage. Forgiveness, the tunnel through which we crawl to reach mercy, is not merely a holy act. It is a practical necessity lest we become mired in our own pain.
Forgiveness is different from condoning or acquiescing to evil. Some cite Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” and say we should never defend ourselves, but that misses his point. Total pacifism began to fade from the Church when Christianity was legalized and believers became government officials. They saw how bullies and manipulators interpret gestures of peace as signs of weakness: The Stalins, Hitlers, and Gadafis grab the olive branch of peace, whittle it into a whip, and use it for their own power. They’re kin with Mafia dons and drug cartel kingpins. They’re the reason why Augustine theorized about the “just war,” which is really modified pacifism: The government must protect its residents from blitzkriegs, Red Armies, and terrorists. The caveats: War is the last resort; it must be provoked; and we always march with tears, never in bluster or bravado.
My own “never again”
Earnest Christians still debate pacifism verses just war, as they do many subjects. Such is life this side of the Second Coming.
There is one issue, however, on which we should all agree. It stood before me stark and clear during my family’s 9-11 experience at the Pennsylvania pastors’ conference, held by a denomination of which I am no longer a member. As was normal for that week, many speakers were stranded in far-off terminals and could not reach the event. Incredibly, the conference leaders spurred it on, as if everything were normal. Other, more local speakers filled the slots. They’d give perfunctory references to the national catastrophe and mentioned it in prayers, but there was little else. We soldiered boldly into an eerie denominational ra-ra: We were on the cusp; we were cutting edge; we were relevant; we would lead the pack in the upcoming, 21st-century revival. We enclosed ourselves in Christian bubble, singing our songs of praise after passing by the 24-hour news coverage in the hotel lobby. It was perverse.
I resolved, then and there, that I would never live in such a bubble. I am, indeed, a citizen of two kingdoms: I am an ambassador of heaven to this society in this era with its issues and turmoil. I will be engaged in this society. I will be engaged as I kneel in prayer, momentarily invoking the imprecatory psalms with an eye on the passages on grace and mercy; I will be engaged as a listener, a wounded healer, and – yes – as an advocate for the way of Christ. I will be engaged as I continually and repeatedly pop that bubble. The events of 9-11 and its consequences compel me to be engaged, embracing my Earthly and Heavenly citizenship.
Such is my 9-11 story.